Fiction, beneficial for our psychology

This text appeared in the paper edition of November 30, 2022

Anyone who loves cinema or television understands that we often get attached to our fictional characters. Whether we love them or hate them, they are part of our daily lives. If we don’t really know them, why do we feel such great attachment to them?

A few weeks ago I was on the subway when I received a notification on my phone that upset me. Actor Robbie Coltrane has died aged 72.

Its name may not mean anything to you, but it has great meaning for followers of the film series. Harry Potter. He played the endearing Hagrid, the guardian of the prestigious Hogwarts school of wizards. I love movies with Harry Potter ; I watch them every year during the holidays. So I felt a lump in my throat when I heard the news.

After careful consideration, I realized that thousands of people, including myself, who felt sadness did not know Robbie Coltrane personally. So why are we so affected when fictional characters — or their interpreters, in this case — die?

The identification theory is a first concept where, as its name suggests, an individual identifies with a character. Intellectuals like Hermione in Harry Potter or comedians like Jake Peralta in Brooklyn Nine-Nine have many admirers and many admirers. Some people of color or from the LGBTQ+ community may also become more attached to figures who look like them. For many, they are less present on the screen. We can think of movies Moana and Encanta, where the main characters are drawn from diversity, as well as Buzz Lightningwhere two women kiss for the first time in Disney history.

We will learn and experience things through the character », explains Natacha Godbout, clinical psychologist and professor in the Department of Sexology at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM).

The attachment expert also explains that identification can come from the concept of narrative transport. “People enter history, they will live it from the inside”, she points out. Empathetic people feel more compassion for their favorite characters, while imaginative people like to discover the plot of the story. These two categories of people fit into the mold of this theory.

Parasocial relationships are the best-known scientific hypothesis. This concept consists of a friendly or romantic relationship that a person lives with a known personality. However, these are, for the most part, non-reciprocal relationships, since the celebrity does not know the person who admires him.

The first example that comes to mind is Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter. On the popular TikTok app, I’ve seen hundreds of videos about people having a crush on the boy wizard. He’s not the only one: Maddy in EuphoriaDamon and Stefan Salvatore in Vampire Diaries and John B in Outerbanks were notably targeted by this same type of video.

If many people may think that a parasocial relationship is toxic, psychologist Natacha Godbout assures the opposite. “It’s even useful. For those who are afraid of rejection, it allows them to avoid this embarrassment, for example”she argues.

According to Ms. Godbout, anxious people are those who live above all this ” false intimacy “. “They are the ones who will experience the most sadness when a character or [son interprète] dies », she explains. It is even positive according to the professional, since the death of a character can prepare them to live that of a loved one.

Identification even allows for prevention, according to Ms. Godbout. For example, seeing young Hermione being bullied, many parents may discuss this situation with their children. “We can ask them if this has ever happened to them, what to do and what not to do”underlines the psychologist.

Feeling a great attachment to one’s favorite characters is therefore a phenomenon that occurs in thousands, even millions of people. Although they don’t experience it for the same reasons, some of them recognize themselves among the characters on their screens. Others will experience such a great attachment that a strong love will be born towards these characters.

Fiction, beneficial for our psychology